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City, The

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City, The

Publication date 1939
Digitizing sponsor American Institute of Planners, through Civic Films, Inc.
Contents. A plea for community planning, which contrasts the awesome conditions of human living in a modern industrial city with (1) the serenity of life in an eighteenth-century New England village and (2) the architect's and engineer's concept of the model community, as typified by the federal government's resettlement experiment at Greenbelt, Maryland, and the privately developed one at Radburn, New Jersey.
Life in the New England village of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century is described. There are slowly unfolding views of an old water wheel, a covered bridge, the swimming hole, and other scenes characteristic of the period. A town meeting is shown in session; the speaker at the meeting talks of the village way of life and his remarks are illustrated by views of people at simple handicraft tasks.
The transition to the modern industrial city is made by the merging of a shower of sparks from the smithy's forge with those from a Bessemer converter in a modern steel mill. The scenes change to smokestacks against the sky, to molten slag flowing down the dump, and to the miserable company houses. Children walk along the crude wooden sidewalks. One child narrowly escapes death when he and his companions run across a railroad track in front of a train. A woman pumps water a few feet from an outdoor toilet, hangs the washing in a smoke-filled atmosphere, and shovels coal into an outmoded kitchen stove. Such symbols of industrialism as smokestacks, locomotives, and steam shovels are shown as the musical tempo is accelerated and the commentator echoes the phrases "better and better" and "faster and faster."
Now attention is turned to the great metropolis, New York. Dwarfed by the skyscrapers, human beings mill through city streets, push out of subways, and squeeze through seemingly endless lines of mid-town traffic. The music works up to a screech symbolic of the nervous tension and speed of life in the metropolitan business center. An office scene of long rows of girls at typewriters is accompanied by a chorus of dictation—mechanical and impersonal. The environment in which children live and play is depicted by scenes of a street accident in which an ambulance takes away the victim, of boys who play stick ball in the street, steal rides on trucks and streetcars, rummage through garbage, and dive from a dock for a swim in a dirty river.
At the lunch hour people gulp coffee and eat sandwiches in an atmosphere of confusion—sandwiches are slapped together, toast bounces out of a toaster, and pancakes pour automatically on an automatic griddle. Workers return to work through streams of traffic. Long lines of people wait at clinics and dispensaries. At the end of the day the crowds begin to pour out of buildings and start home. Crowds of pedestrians, a traffic jam, traffic officers, traffic signals, together with a shrill, wrenching musical score, create a sense of confusion and tension.
Then comes Sunday. The business district is deserted, but on the highway cars move in a constant stream. Caught in a traffic jam a driver sits and waits. A family picnics on the roadside as the traffic whizzes by. Cars crash bumpers; a car plunges over a cliff.
The next section of the film is the architect's and engineer's solution to the problem. Scenes of Boulder Dam, power lines, research laboratories, airplanes, and streamlined trains convey the impression that science in modern society can provide a way to better living. Modern highway designs are shown as new developments in beauty and safety. There is an aerial view of a well-patterned community which the commentator calls "a green city" built away from crowded metropolitan conditions. In a modern factory employees are shown in a leisurely conducted dining room. Employees walk happily to homes of modern design with adequate lawn space. Recreation facilities are symbolized with views of horseback riding, bicycling, softball games, swimming, gardening, and fishing. An electric stove and an electric washing machine show that much of the drudgery has been taken from housework. The community newspaper comes off the press and is delivered to the front porch. Shopping is done at a modern market; the vegetables, the commentator explains, come from nearby farms. Families leave "the green city" by automobiles for recreation at the golf course, the swimming pool, the skating rink, and the ocean beach. A concert platform, a medical clinic, and a school are shown as parts of the community facilities. Views contrasting "model" housing with crowded tenements, and children playing in large playgrounds with children playing in the dirty street are accompanied by the statement, "Take your choice." Scenes of "cities in which people are always getting ready to live . . ." are followed by scenes of the life that the picture suggests is possible in "a green city."


Directed and Photographed by Ralph Steiner, Willard Van Dyke. Associate in Production: Henwar Rodakiewicz. Original Outline: Pare Lorentz. Scenario: Henwar Rodakiewicz. Commentary: Lewis Mumford. Music: Aaron Copland. Film Editor: Theodore Lawrence. Associate Cameramen: Roger Barlow, Edward Anhalt, Rudolph Bretz. Musical Conductor: Max Goberman. Narrator: Morris Carnovsky. Production Manager: John Flory. Supervised by Oscar Serlin. "This film was made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York."


• 8:56:57:21- 8:57:41:15
Good series of shorter shots of factory town. Images of smoke pillars dissolve into more smoke stacks billowing smoke which then moves into pan across river to various angles of dark, dusty town.

• 8:57:41:28- 8:58:00:03
A continuation of the previous shot.
Medium close ups of impoverished homes with smoke stacks in the background. Quick pan across the densely packed homes.

• 8:58:00:08- 8:58:08:14
People ascending wooden steps between houses with smoke stacks in the background. Documentation of squalid living conditions in Homestead, Pennsylvania, a steel town near Pittsburgh.

• 8:58:08:18- 8:58:19:01
Shot of back of dilapidated homes with mud running through the back yards which cuts to street with similar homes on a hill, crowded streets, and dozens of smoke stacks in the distance.

• 8:58:43:07- 8:58:59:14
Great image of children running to the railroad tracks which cuts to a train racing forward.

• 9:04:10:21- 9:04:38:12
Quick, extremely low angle shots of city sky srapers which ends with a pan down a sky scraper to see people walking along the busy sidewalk. Nice fast-paced cuts.

• 9:06:04:19- 9:06:29:00
Series of short shots of city children playing in the streets of the ghetto. Some make go carts, others collect things from the trash, some hang onto the back of the moving garbage trucks, and others make fires on the dark, back streets.

• 9:10:20:22- 9:10:33:02
Good image of extremely crowded city streets. Urban crowd scene.

• 9:12:30:10- 9:12:47:18
Starts with 1930s cars moving along a highway and cuts to images of the houses and billboards that separate the houses from the highway and moves into more images of the strange billboard ads and safety tips along the highway (one is a wooden, grinning painted police officer with the words "Death Corner, Drive Carefully" beneath him). Good fast pace.

• 9:13:24:20-
Good shot of the wooden police officer which cuts to a roadside ad for beer and sanwiches—a tall, wooden figure leans against a telephone poll and carries a "BEER" sign.

• 9:15:15:26- 9:15:23:08
Camera pans over factory to show the distance between factory and residential neighborhoods.

• 9:16:08:26- 9:16:22:21
Clean children move towards the camera on bicycles—in the background is their suburban school. They ride along paths through their new planned community (Greenbelt, Maryland). Final overhead view of bicycles approaching well-kept homes.


Reviewer: Robert B. Livingston - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - December 27, 2013
Subject: Seeking an ideal way of life

Using a script by the social visionary Lewis Mumford, this film distills many complex ideas to make the argument that people can choose a better way to live.

The illustrative film flows with iconographic scenes of idyllic American pre-industrial townships to alienated industrial landscapes and finally to a vision of an achievable ideal where modernity and community might exist in harmony with the land.

I watched this film with some nostalgia for a time in which prosperity and progress appeared to be within the grasp of all, when even major corporations (this film was sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation) seemed to take their civic responsibilities deeply.

What happened?

Malls, franchises, Walmarts, urban sprawl... flight of the affluent to gated communities, flight of industry in search of cheap labor... and worse.

Smoke continues to pour forth from the earth to mass produce throwaway products and leave hundreds of millions in want and sickness.

While dreams are free and can be downloaded almost anywhere, people can yet choose to live healthier and more satisfying lives.

(The musical score is by Aaron Copeland.)
Reviewer: Spuzz - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - September 22, 2012
Subject: Good City / Bad City
In this appeal to razing down neighborhood slums, the plea to build new cities, and get rid of the ghettos is emphasized. Strikingly visual for such a messaged film, the narration is pretty sparse, sticking with visuals of the city ala Baraka and Koyaanisquatsi. What I like about this film is again the visuals, treating petty items such as road signs into work of art, and it's salute to the car is very masterful as well. What I didn't like, I didn't really think the narration needed to be there, I would be perfectly happy with just the visuals alone, rather then the somewhat stilted narrative. Still, I think this is a reccomended film. Turn down the volume during the narration, and then turn it back up again when the (excellent) music starts up again.
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